Hitchcock’s ‘Family Plot’ Bubbles Over
Not since “To Catch a Thief” and “The Trouble With Harry” has Alfred Hitchcock been in such benign good humor as he is in “Family Plot,” the old master’s 56th feature since he began directing films in 1922.
“Family Plot,” which opened at theaters all over town yesterday, is a witty, relaxed lark. It’s a movie to raise your spirits even as it dabbles in phony ones, especially those called forth by Blanche (Barbara Harris), a sweet, pretty, totally fraudulent Los Angeles medium, who nearly wrecks her vocal cords when possessed by a control whose voice sounds like Sidney Greenstreet’s.
But “Family Plot” isn’t about anything as esoteric as spiritualism and its sometimes wayward votaries. It’s about good old-fashioned greed, or, how to work very, very hard in order to make your fortune illegally. It’s one of the many invigorating ironies of “Family Plot” that its con people are so obsessed by their criminal pursuits they never realize the easier way would probably be the lawful one.
Then, of course, there would be no plot, and a high regard for plot is one of the distinguishing joys of both Hitchcock and this new film.
Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, based on a novel by Victor Canning, is about the efforts of Blanche and her boyfriend, Lumley (Bruce Dern), a good-natured lug who works as a cab driver but thinks he’d like to be an actor, to track down the missing heir to a huge West Coast fortune. If Blanche’s spirits help her to find the fellow, she’s been promised $10,000 by the heir’s ancient aunt (Cathleen Nesbitt). Although $10,000 isn’t exactly beyond our wildest dreams, to Blanche and Lumley it represents a lot of palms that won’t have to be read.
The object of their man-hunt, though they don’t know it for a long time, is a wealthy Los Angeles jeweler named Adamson (William Devane) who, with his girlfriend. Fran (Karen Black), has a passion for oversize diamonds he cannot afford.
To satisfy their passion, Adamson and Fran have perfected the art of kidnapping for ransoms of king-size jewels. When we first meet them, they are just completing the successful abduction of a fabulously rich, seemingly Greek international financier and, before the movie is over, they’ve had equally good luck with the abduction of a bishop, whom they snatch from the altar of his cathedral during mass.
Hitchcock cross-cuts between the two couples in the course of the film to build a kind of menace-free but very real suspense. Fran and Adamson, who live in a very chic San Francisco town house (though the rest of the movie appears to be set in Los Angeles), are naturally worried when they learn they are being pursued by an eccentric fortuneteller and her taxi driver lover, and they take steps to eliminate the investigators.
It’s not revealing too much, I think, to report that these steps are never completely successful. Blanche and Lumley, merged, make a single bird-brain, but one whom heaven protects and fortune smiles on.
As performed by Miss Harris and Mr. Dern, they are two of the most appealing would-be rascals that Hitchcock has even given us. For that matter so are Adamson and Fran (she has no last name, which leaves her matrimonial state in Old World, gentlemanly doubt). Though Adamson is portrayed as being perfectly willing to murder, when cornered, he never succeeds, and Fran is the kind of kidnapper who prepares gourmet meals for her involuntary guests.
The four are extremely good company, like Hitchcock himself when, in an expansive, genial, storytelling mood, even his digressions have digressions, but always to the point of some higher entertainment truth.
Hitchcock aficionados may well miss signs of the director’s often overanalyzed pessimism. “Family Plot” is certainly Hitchcock’s most cheerful film in a long time, but it’s hardly innocent. One of the things that figure prominently in the plot, though it happens long before the film starts, is the story of a young man who, finding his stepparents boring, pours gasoline all over the house and incinerates the offending pair.
It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it continues the master’s franchise on the macabre.
Vincent Canby, NY Times, April 10, 1976